Waking on Friday morning, it seemed as though just another day in paradise lay ahead. Karen was attending her final class at the five-day cooking course being held at the home of the cookbook author and her husband, who run these courses several times a year. I was invited to join the 11 students and two teachers for a farewell lunch. Arriving with the class, I sat under a large shady tree on a wide patio area overlooking a vineyard on the stepped terrace below my right side, as a rustic water wheel pumped a steady burble of water into the azure swimming pool on the stepped terrace below me to the left. Olive groves, herb gardens, cobblestone paths underneath vine-smothered archways and cultivated flower beds surrounded us. Forested hillsides stretched below us for miles around. Between reading my book and watching the students periodically wander outside in their uniform aprons to pick herbs or vegetables from the garden, I chatted with the only other guest, wife of one of Karen’s classmates. She was just as mesmerised as me by the luxuriously landscaped grounds we found ourselves sitting in.
At least three renovated 17th century stone buildings adjoined by a central cobbled courtyard hosted the class who were allocated to teams working out of three separate, fully equipped kitchens featuring marble sinks, central island benches and servery windows overlooking the grounds and valleys below. Clay pizza ovens against one sheltered outdoor wall and an old gas stove against another wall beside the cellar door, form a fourth and fifth cooking area. On such a sunny day the indoor dining room was shunned in favour of a large curved, concrete table perched in the shade of an atrium-like grapevine overlooking the hills and valleys below.
You would think life could not possibly get any better than this. The company seemed warm and friendly, the five course meal was gourmet standard, and wine made from the private vineyards we were sitting amongst flowed. As one of the courses ended, the teacher announced that today there were two guests at the table, and the cost of our meal was to tell the group a little about ourselves.
I gave a brief outline of having recently worked in Cambodia. This elicited a lot of lively questions about TB disease, Cambodia, Khmer people and Medecins sans Frontieres. When I said that the experience had been life changing, I was asked to elaborate, so I said that exposure to such poverty as I had not known existed, had a powerful impact on me. A lady sitting opposite me asked if MSF ever need surgeons because her husband is a surgeon and it sounded like something he would like to do. Whilst trying to answer her, I was asked to elaborate further on how and why the experience had affected me.
Using the example from my most recent blog, I told them Paula’s story. In hindsight, I guess it’s because the topic of surgeons had been mentioned, that I chose Paula instead of anyone else from a multitude of possible examples I could have used. Specialised surgery which is unavailable to Paula could potentially give her a normal life again. I said that while I sit here enjoying this life of comfort, I am acutely aware that simultaneously there are many who don’t have even a smidgen of the comforts that I take for granted, for example this 25yo woman sitting on wooden slats in a shack beside the Mekong, waiting to die solely because she was born into impoverishment. This all happened amidst a flood of questions and lively conversation. One woman opposite me wiped tears from her eyes while her friend, the surgeon’s wife, asked me to elaborate on abdominal TB and Paula’s actual symptoms. When I did she stated “my husband is one of the top colo-rectal surgeons in the USA and if we tell him about her, he will want to help”. I could not quite believe my ears, was this a cruel joke?
When lunch ended, these two women, who I felt an immediate affinity with (for obvious reasons), returned to the tree between the vineyard and the pool with me. The surgeon’s wife turned her iPhone to video and filmed me explaining briefly, Paula’s clinical and social circumstances. She emailed the video to her husband. Within an hour he had replied to say that he believes he can help!
I won’t go into detail as we don’t yet know how this will play out. We will not mention more than a very faint possibility of hope to Paula at this stage, purely to get an idea of how she might react, while we wait to see if the many hoops we need to jump through and arrangements we need to organise can make this idea a reality. In the space of one day an American surgeon, his colleagues, his wife, her friend, Karen, myself and the medical team in Cambodia, many of whom did not know each other existed until yesterday, have become a project team!
Connecting the world’s most privileged with the world’s most underprivileged to bring a little bit of balance, seems to me, more celestial than any landscaped poolside garden or gourmet meal could ever be. It also seems that a little chunk of respect and worth, usually reserved for first-worlders, may have fallen off a cloud and landed in the twiggy lap of a young third-worlder who could never have dared imagine such good fortune!
I’ll update news here as it hopefully takes shape.